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Don’t Hire Remote Workers

John Doherty —  December 31, 2011
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This post is outside of my normal realm of SEO writing, but I felt like it needed to be written.

Today I read a blog post on 37Signals called Stop Whining and Start Hiring Remote Workers. I have been hearing people say, at an increasing rate, that “We’re in a global economy, so get with the times and hire people who live far aways, or open an office there.” Last night I was at dinner with Rand Fishkin, Michael King, and a number of others when this conversation came up. It’s something I’ve been thinking about.

Look at some of the greatest companies and where they started from. Look at why they succeed. I’ve got one word for you: culture.

Google has a great corporate culture (yes, they are international, but started out very small). SAS has an incredible culture in North Carolina. Zappos in Vegas. In the SEO world, SEOmoz has an unparalleled culture in Seattle. Even at Distilled, we hire for culture and that is a large part of why our company has become great.

But let’s not joke around. Being spread across three offices is hard. Having coworkers in two other locations and spread across eight time zones is taxing. Corporate culture suffers because of it, because we lack in the in-person time to connect. Sure, we have Skype and Gchat and Google+, but the connections that we would otherwise have with our coworkers are not as strong as they could be because of these distances. In fact, we’re having an all-company meeting in London for a week at the end of January precisely so that we can all interact together and get to know one another. Yes, it is a huge business expense, but our executives think that the camaraderie that comes from this week will be more than worth the immediate monetary expense in long-term value.

I am not saying that opening new offices is bad, or that hiring remote workers is always a bad idea (contrary to what the title says), as often the business decisions are sound. But think long and hard about WHY you are thinking to hire remote workers. Are the drawbacks really worth what you stand to gain?

A global economy is largely good (in my opinion). But a global economy with blanket lessons applied to everyone = dangerous. Just like we always say in SEO blog posts: “What worked for me may not work for you. Always be testing.”


I’d love your comments.

*Addition* – I’m referring in this post to full-time employees, not consultants. Outside consultants most definitely have their place. I am an outside consultant myself, often just dealing with clients by phone. I will say, however, that the times I have met with clients in person is when the most gets done and change happens.

John Doherty

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I'm the Senior Marketing Manager of HotPads.com, based in San Francisco. Previous to Hotpads I worked at Distilled for 2 years as an online marketing consultant. In my spare time I shoot lifestyle photography, ski, rock climb, and update my Twitter and Google+ accounts.

38 responses to Don’t Hire Remote Workers

  1. I have mixed feelings about working remotely. Having worked at Distilled, I know the challenges of working with people you’ve never met, and with longer turn around times. I thought it was a burden and a pleasure though.

    Of course, it was prohibitive to some cultural elements, but it created other elements that made working at Distilled a pleasure. I got to join the Seattle office as employee #6. We had a great start-up culture while working in the cramped closet (I mean office) in the SEOmoz office. You’d literally had to weave through desks to make it to your own. We were all from across the US and moved to Seattle alone, so it was like a family. Being a remote worker allowed us to have a very scrappy start-up feel, with a small number of employees, while knowing we were built on top of a larger, more established, agency in the UK. Had I stayed until the Seattle office hit 15 to 20 people, my feelings on it could have changed though

    And now in my new role, I have a large number of development projects to complete in 2012. My limitation is having enough developers to execute. It’s a challenge hiring good engineers quickly in the Seattle market. We already have two remote offices, so strategically they’ll be helpful for recruiting in markets with less competition.

    • Thanks for your comment, Justin, and I totally agree with you. I love working in the NYC office (I was employee #2 here) and that startup vibe, which is a lot of fun. I can’t help but feel the strains it puts on coworker relationships, though, as you alluded to, and sometimes it is harder to get things done because of the time differences. I’m definitely not saying it can’t be done, I’m just saying to think about it.

      Your experience at your new job is definitely interesting. Do you like having remote offices of engineers?

      • The nature and size of a company certainly creates some of the issues associated with “getting things done” because a job depends on someone who is remote. A problem with a small company is that there is usually only one or two people with the skill set to do a particular job. Like a graphic designer, copywriter, coder, analyst, sales, etc. If that one role is in only one office, that task hits the bottle neck of remote communication, different time zones, etc.

        My new company is much larger (450 people, 3 offices), and core roles are more redundant. I have 26 developers I can see face to face if I need something turned around quickly or have a question to ask. I don’t need to wait on the remote offices to wake up and come into work hours later. Being large enough to have redundancies certainly helps. I think how offices are staffed starts to become a strategic concern. That’s one area I think we’ve done well. The other issue is how much does culture depend on face time? It’s surprisingly less than I would have expected. This is my first time working in-house at a larger company and I’ve still not met half of the people who work in my office, but when I need to work with them for the first time, I can tell instantly “yep, this is a Big Fish person”.

        I like being able to have a remote office of engineers, because depending on local talent alone can slow down pacing. When you are working to ship quickly, or be first to market on something, it can put a huge drain on engineering resources for day to day work. I think this is especially a concern for SEO, because it’s so hard to make the ROI case for using a Seattle engineer’s expensive time. Remote hiring can help remove the bottleneck.

  2. I originally clicked on this because I am essentially a remote worker and I wanted to dispute your statement, but you make a great point …for bigger businesses.

    Culture is important, and business culture is arguably equally important for the big guys. I think smaller businesses can more easily get away with it until they get large enough to have a culture.

    • Good call, Nick. For larger businesses this is probably way more important. I definitely think culture is important with even 2 people though. That in person time, at least for me, is super important.

  3. I really like the statement at the end “always be testing.” At Moz, we were never great at building a company with remote employees, and so gravitated to having a single location where we could all work together more intimately. That’s been great for us, but it’s not for everyone.

    Third Door Media, Radian 6, Define Search are all roughly in our space, though with vastly different business models, and all of them are entirely remote (virtually no two workers in the same city, though Radian6′s purchase by Salesforce may have changed that for them). If it ain’t broke…

    I’d also say, in regards to the “A players are worth diverse geography” arguments that for us, it doesn’t work. If we need your presence at meetings, for one:ones, for brainstorming sessions and for the amazing serendipity that happens when smart people gather for meals, walks and social events, it’s nearly impossible to swing.

    • Thanks for your valuable insights, Rand. I was just thinking that maybe culture is not as important for some as it is for others of us. But someone who does not value culture nearly as much as you or I (and there’s no problem with that, it’s just different tastes) would have trouble disputing your points about the one on ones, the brainstorming sessions, the meals and social events. Some of my best ideas have come about through having beers with Tom or others in the company.

  4. Here in Italy there are very few agencies with more than one office and I’ve never had a remote working experience, but I enjoy a lot time with my colleagues, both at work and outdoor. Definitely, human contact is unvaluable to me.

    Oh, happy new year, John

    Giuseppe

    • Hi Giuseppe –

      Thanks for your comment and for dropping by to read! That’s great to hear that the human aspect is invaluable for you. I’m thinking that the answer for me is somewhere in the middle, where I can work from home if needed but also need to be in the office a lot. Especially if you’re in a managerial position, that in-person aspect is quite key.

      Happy new years to you as well.

  5. It really depends on the job type. We have people (the core team) that cannot work from home or remotely but has to be in the same office at least for 8 hrs a day for “combined brainpower”; but there are colleagues like writers and programmers who can work from home easily and maybe even more effectively than if they were distracted by the rest of us in the office!

    And yes, always be testing is a good advice, and each company / team has to come up with its own, most effective solution.

    Happy new year!

    • Hey Mark –

      Sorry, your comment got held up in spam! I actually completely agree with you. I think the core team should be together usually, but it’s fine to outsource. I get a lot of work done when I work at home, but that in-person time at the office is needed. You’re totally right that it depends on job type.

      Thanks for the comment and happy new years to you as well!

  6. Hi John and happy new 2012 first.
    Then… I too agree that Culture is better when people work in the same place, but I think that, and probably the Distilled case may be a great example, sometimes expansion/success oblige companies in creating different branches in other geographies in order to stay closer to their clients. Or maybe because it is needed by local legislation in order to operate in one market (i.e.: that’s the case of the TV industry I worked in the past).
    Certainly, Culture may get lost, but not necessarily. If that Culture is strong and if the person(s) in charge of the new offices are really firm in their empathy with that Culture and able to transmit it as a virus to the new employees, then I think it is possible to create “remote” offices without Culture loss.
    That does not mean that are obliged events that brings all the people together, as you wrote for the meet up in London of the three Distilled offices, in order to reinforce the Culture, but, I repeat, if that Culture is always clearly present in every new remote office, than I think that the problems may be others than that, and mostly on a organizational side.
    But, I must admit I am biased by my past experience in television, where Culture and Brand identity is always really strong and strongly exported and lived in every different geography a syndication may be present.

    • Hey Gianluca –
      Thanks for your comment and happy new years to you as well! Your point about culture not necessarily having to be lost is interesting. From what I’ve seen, each Distilled office has its own culture, which I guess is then part of the larger Distilled culture. I think we do a superb job of hiring, though, and our heads of offices (Tom and Rob) were very instrumental to the current Distilled culture becoming what it is today, so they’ve been able to help keep it cohesive. It’s hard, though, and the communication across offices is hard.

      What do you think the issues are on the organizational side? Communication and how do you keep up with what everyone is doing across the offices? I’d be interested to hear you flesh that out a bit more.

      • Hi John!
        As you guessed I was referring mostly to communication problems.
        As Rand pointed out in his comment, sometimes you need to have the persons right there in front of you when doing a meeting, in order to see every body language reaction when discussing. And sometimes you just need to be able to jump at his desk to discuss an idea.
        Not that these kind of things cannot be solved with modern technology, but undoubtedly it is not the same to hangout in Google+ and having a real face to face talk.
        That is why the “leaders” of the different offices must be also great communicators, and that is why the central direction must totally rely and trust them as able to deliver the main strategy of the company.
        And that is why, when I was working in Canal Plus, one of the “tactics” used by the company was to move people from one office to another for a-week-period-dive, in order to strengthen ties between the offices and to create an even better common culture, which was the results of the different “local” variations of the same culture… as a side note that is why I know so well Paris :D

  7. Hi John!
    I read with a lot of attention of this post. I just want to share my experience. I’m working in Berlin, as SEO manager for Italy for a big fashion e-commerce. The thing I like the most is that we, as SEOs and as all the other channels, are working all together, in same floor. We are people from Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, France, Netherlands and UK for now. I am really happy about this situation, because I learnt and I’m learning a lot working with people with different cultures, experiences, and way of seeing things. As you said: “always be testing”. That would not be possible for me (as SEO beginner) without the help, fights and laughings with other SEOs from all over Europe. I am glad we work all together, and I really hope it’ll stay this way.

    So there. Just to share what’s happening to me.

    thanks for sharing!

  8. I’ll give a counter example: I work for a ~20 person rails/iOS team where everyone is remote. That IS our culture… anyone who survives long at our company is highly self motivated and uses their freedom to do awesome things – we travel, try living in new countries, build things on our own time… we are musicians, artists, political organizers, to name a few. In short: people not limited by the space and time our company occupies. As colleagues we earn each others’ respect by busting our asses and building awesome things even when we have so much freedom at our fingertips.

    Added benefit: we have coworkers all over the world. Within the remote culture, it’s not hard to take off and visit each other in a new country for a while. So we do :)

  9. It definitely cuts both ways one of the major advantages to consider with being able to have a distributed team is that you can get access to AMAZING motivated talent that can often bridge the physical gap. Reading some of the blogs the Balsamiq team have written shows off some of the power. I have volunteered for a distributed project developing 100 mpg cars and while it is often quite messy it is also amazing what happens when you get a pack of motivated awesome people pointed in one direction.

  10. Hi John, I work as a remote worker for a company and I meet workers on average on a 5 week basis, often less. As you can imagine it has pros/cons of course. Yes you can have a culture even with remote workers but I think you have to create that in person in the first place before you can extend it with remote workers or at least sustain it successfully. As I mentioned before some of the finest online talent has coalesced remotely to produce the gem that is WordPress and others as mentioned here.

    Also I’ve experienced locations where even within the office space the dynamics of the layout/rooms/cubicles/office environment has negatively affected the team collaboration and culture. Bad.

    I think the key to it is hiring for the culture and communicate -and i don’t mean just a craptonne of email, a cc culture and voicemail hell.n No thanks.

  11. Dude, you’re an SEO consultant. You lose all credibility instantly on that basis alone.

    It’s not that search listings don’t count – it’s more that “SEO” isn’t a job title or a profession. The whole “SEO community” has no substance whatsoever. It’s entirely based on posturing, pseudo-science and the occasional bone that Matt Cutts throws over the wall to a crowd of rabid, uneducated losers trying to make a quick buck on the internet.

    Conventional marketing + competent technical staff = no need to hire snake-oil consultants.

    Now gtfo the internet you pathetic waste of space.

    • Hey Ryan –
      Thanks for the comment, though I personally normally start out by talking with the person writing the article instead of instantly trying to troll them by making inane comments. And I also usually read the article and engage with the points at hand. But hey, maybe that’s just me.

      In regards to what you said, I’d love to discuss SEO as a profession and industry with you. I’m pretty sure the last figure I heard for the size of the SEO industry was $17 billion per year? Man, that’s a lot of snake oil.

      Concerning your point regarding conventional marketing : competent technical staff, I disagree with the second part. Conventional marketing can be useful, and yes, I wish a lot more SEOs had traditional marketing training. I wish I did. I plan on getting some. But I know a lot of SEOs who will kick any conventional marketer’s skills out the door, and I know a lot of “competent”, no, BRILLIANT technical people who don’t know anything about making a website that is crawlable. I bet a lot of these technical people can’t even crawl a website’s log. Can you? I can.

      Feel free to come back and comment. I love haters. But please, be educated about it next time.

    • Aw, I think Ryan needs a hug. C’mere, you. I don’t even mind that your hateful comments are insubstantial and unrelated to the topic at hand. Or that you smell like cabbage. You are a creature of this earth, and in need of love.

      And I will give it to you, Ryan. In the form of many, many awkward hugs.

  12. “Just like we always say in SEO blog posts”

    Are you serious. You are using “SEO blog posts” to back up a real world point? You guys make my skin crawl.

    • Do we? I’m sorry that SEOs make your skin crawl. What do you do again? I’d love to know, but I can’t even engage with you other than in blog comments because you were too scared to put a real URL to your comment.

      Sorry I don’t live in the “real world”. I guess living in New York in a real apartment, with a real well paying job, in an industry full of cool and really frickin smart people, and doing well for clients and watching their businesses grow isn’t real enough for you. And there’s nothing I can do about that.

  13. Don’t feed the trolls. :)

  14. For a guy that hates SEO, Ryan’s spending quite a bit of time on an SEO blog…

  15. I just don’t want to miss this out. it’s a great initiative. hugging haters. so I’m taking part of it.
    :)

  16. I agree, hiring remote workers is difficult. I worked remotely when I was with Outspoken, and it was really difficult. I was in an office with people doing similar work, but they didn’t know the clients or the strategies. Even with daily Skype calls and weekly Skype meetings, I was essentially an island; I had my clients that I worked on alone, and rarely interacted with my co-workers. In fact, I never met most of them until *after* I no longer worked there.

    The startup I currently work for is in an office with less-than-ideal conditions, and people keep asking me why I don’t jsut work from home or coffee shops. The reason is because it is so much easier to have the devs right there with me, to be able to collaborate immediately, to solve problems as they happen – you simply don’t have that ability from other locations.

  17. Good point. I think it depends on the way the culture is built within the company. Sara Rosso, VIP Services Engineer at Automattic (wordpress.com) spoke at LeWeb in Paris 2011 [this 5 mins 38second video well worth watching: http://youtu.be/yFEb4BME4tE ].

    She discusses the future way of working as “the distributed company” and how Automattic (wordpress.com) has been successful at building this type of culture. Communication is one of the key factors and deciding on what communication tools will be utilized throughout an organization that will allow employees the opportunity to engage and connect with eachother remotely is extremely important to the success. One also has to manage themselves effectively and manage expectations appropriately. Working remotely allows one to design their day according to what works best for an individual, live where one wants to live, and much more. It’s the best of both worlds.

    One of the major challenges remote workers face is the fact that most companies still operate like they did 40-50-60 years ago and have not adapted to the culture of today. Transparency of companies also plays a key role.

    Times have changed and being open to new ways is important. But, employees must hold themselves accountable by being driven, proactive self-starters, which can often be a rare attribute in an individual. If you’re not building an “A” team, then it won’t be successful.

  18. John, you just inspired me to write this: Hiring remote workers & why its NOT for me – http://ow.ly/8h8lk

    I was hoping your piece would have been a bit tougher on the concept, but I think I understand your balanced approach, either way, I’ve been on vacation all week and was hoping to get a spark to write a post, and man…that was it!!! Thank you!

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